Way back in mid-summer, I posted a list of topics I felt would be covered here in future posts—a sort of preview trailer, if you will. One list item, tiny houses, hasn’t had much play here on the blog, but took a prominent role in class discussion today.
We’re reading our way through John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and our format is that everyone is to come to class with a list of three discussion topics. Anything is fair game: questions, connections, favorite quotes—the only rule is you have to come with something (three somethings, actually) to talk about.
Often times, a student’s thoughts will be, quite literally on the same page as my own. Today was one of those days.
While spending time in Maine early in his journey (midway through part 2, for those reading along at home) Steinbeck marveled at the apparently new practice—in1960— of people living in mobile homes. Steinbeck made it a practice to talk to people along his travels, to pull locals into his trip experience so he could learn new perspectives. Not a bad way to go about a journey of any kind, I’d say. So he spent time in a few of these newfangled trailer parks—supped with families, chatted with park managers, toured a few of the “wonderfully built” homes.
Of course, the immediate response here was to giggle just a bit at the concept of mobile homes being not only new, but applauded. But then I asked the students if they could think of any modern day parallels to the mobile home.
M—always sharp, that one--noted the irony of today’s RVs being a status symbol, but trailers representing the polar opposite. True. But I encouraged the students to dig even deeper. What was really going on here? Why were people attracted to this new type of living?
Steinbeck asked the same question. “Why did a family choose to live in such a home?” he asked, then answered his own question: “Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to keep clean, and easy to heat.” Hmm.
I asked the students if they have heard of tiny houses. One or two raised a tentative hand. So I pulled up google images and we took a look at our modern version of sustainable, simple living. Go--check it out--it's fascinating.
It became clear, then, that this idea to downsize—to not be tied down to endless chores and cleaning, and throwing cash at a heating bill wasn’t bound to a certain decade. Thinking back to Whitman, we realized that the idea of unfettered living in the moment wasn’t even tied to a single century. And so it began.
I divided the class into groups and they worked at finding other connections between Whitman and Steinbeck. One group decided that Steinbeck and Whitman had similar views on religion—finding God in nature rather than organized religion. Another group talked about Whitman’s comments on animals:
“I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid
and self-contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long.”
--Song of Myself, section 32
--and discussed Steinbeck’s choice of Charley as a traveling companion. M and his group talked about both authors' desire to sleep under stars and live in the moment.
Connections and ideas and energy coursed through the room as it did through the veins of the writers who included us in their journeys. I can only hope this semester will be a launching pad for many more adventurous travels.
I hope someone out there may be reading along with us—and, if you are, please join in the conversation.
This is the fourth installment of our new Friday Feature exploring the literature I'm teaching my sophomores in our Great American Road Trip course. I'm so excited to be sharing some of my favorite books--stories that have inspired me and fed my sense of adventure and belief that anything at all is possible if you just set out and explore. Glad to have you along for the ride.